Reopening Sendai Airport and the New U.S.-Japan Cooperative Strategy

Operation Tomodachi Sendai Airport US Military

As part of a program dubbed “Operation Tomodachi” by the U.S. military to help with rescue and recovery in the Tohoku disaster area, an average of 100 to 200 U.S. troops a day were assigned to clean up debris at Sendai Airport from March 19 through April 3. (Photo courtesy of Self Defense Force - Joint Task Force Tohoku)

Cultural News, 2011 July Issue / Tohoku Bulletin & Japan Behind News

By Motoaki Kamiura in Tokyo

Translated by Alan Gleason

The earthquake and tsunami of March 11 did incalculable damage to cities on the Pacific coast of northeastern Japan. The tsunami also inundated Sendai Airport, burying its runway and terminal building in piles of rubble.

But the smashed vehicles, ravaged buildings and other debris that covered the airport were cleared away in record time, allowing the airport to reopen only a month later. The speedy cleanup work was a cooperative effort involving Japan’s private sector and the U.S. Marines, part of a program dubbed “Operation Tomodachi” by the U.S. military.

U.S. Air Force Special Operations Forces stationed at Kadena Air Base in Okinawa air-dropped vehicles and equipment by parachute. Images of mud-covered American soldiers at work, subsisting on the week’s worth of field rations they had brought with them, were repeatedly broadcast on the TV news.

Though it was not widely publicized, one Japanese business in particular made a significant contribution to the remarkable resuscitation of Sendai Airport. The company was Maeda Road Construction Co. Ltd., which had a contract with Japan’s Transport Ministry to handle maintenance at Sendai Airport.

From March 15 — four days after the earthquake — until April 13, the day commercial flights resumed from Sendai, Maeda Road sent an average of 150 to 200 workers to the site every day. It also had an average of 100 heavy equipment vehicles clearing rubble from the runways and aprons on any given day, including 30 to 40 eleven-ton dump trucks, 15 backhoes, 14 power shovels, and 12 sprinkler trucks.

Meanwhile, between March 19 and April 3, U.S. military personnel at the site averaged 100 to 200 troops a day, along with eight backhoes, four tractors, and four trailers.

Japan’s Self-Defense Forces (SDF) were dispatched mainly to handle cleanup operations around the perimeter of the airport, but several SDF interpreters were also assigned to coordinate recovery efforts at the airport.

It goes without saying that this joint airport restoration effort by Japanese and American troops with a private Japanese company proved to be a tremendous success. Once Sendai Airport reopened, it handled a steady influx of cargo and transport planes carrying relief supplies to the Tohoku region, not only from elsewhere in Japan but overseas as well.

One effect of this successful mission is that it has accelerated movement toward revamping the security arrangement between Japan and the U.S.

Until now this arrangement has roughly consisted of the U.S. providing the spear and Japan’s SDF the shield. The SDF protects America’s military bases in Japan, which serve as the citadels from which the two nations would together repel any invading force. This has been part of what is known as America’s forward deployment strategy.

Under the new security arrangement, however, the defense of Japan would primarily be the task of the SDF, with support from U.S. forces as well as Japan’s private sector.

Propelling this shift are the fact that the odds of a foreign country launching a military invasion of Japan are now extremely low, and the U.S. desire to reduce the massive defense outlays necessitated by its forward deployment strategy.

Against this background, Operation Tomodachi is in some ways a test run for the Japan-U.S. security agreement of the future. The success of such operations helps pave the way for further withdrawals of U.S. troops from Japan and South Korea to the American mainland.

According to this new strategy, an enhanced American capacity for rapid long-distance deployment would enable it to rush to the aid of Japan or South Korea in short order if a military emergency did occur in the Far East.

Motoaki Kamiura is a Tokyo-based military analyst. He appears frequently on national television programs.

Alan Gleason is an editor, writer, and Japanese-English translator. He lives in Tokyo.

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